no comparison: Progressively Worse

My children’s (relatively recent) experience of the education system was at times perplexing. The curriculum didn’t seem systematic, rigorous or engaging – a bad combination. Teachers didn’t seem to understand why they did what they did – the younger ones, anyway. The older ones rolled their eyes and told me how long they had to go before retirement. ‘Zero-tolerance’ of poor behaviour amounted to stringent sanctions for having the ‘wrong’ hairstyles, but no action on low-level disruption in the classroom. High aspirations took the form of a big push to get borderline children over the ‘average’ threshold for SATs, but left the gifted and talented bored and those with SEN floundering. Did I attribute these phenomena to progressive education? No. I attributed them to a fragmented curriculum, inadequate teacher training, poor behaviour management and a lack of understanding on the part of central government about how systems work, all of which are possible whether progressive or traditional teaching methods are being deployed. In fact the most perplexing school my kids attended didn’t look in the least progressive. The curriculum was inflexible, the teachers were inflexible, there were a lot of rewards and sanctions and an intense focus on test results.

educational reform

Then I started to hear talk of reforming the curriculum, reforming teacher training, giving teachers more professional freedom, improving behaviour to allow teachers to teach, getting rid of the target culture, and of an evidence-based education system. My hopes were raised, but not for long; what we appear to be heading towards instead is a differently-fragmented curriculum, little or no teacher training, shifting the blame for poor behaviour onto parents, changing the targets and an interesting approach to using evidence. It’s the evidence bit that’s really got to me, which is why I’ve been critical of the ‘new traditionalists’ rather than the education system they too are complaining about.

traditional vs progressive

In Progressively Worse Robert Peal predicted that educational commentators would accuse him of a ‘polarising rhetoric’ that establishes ‘false dichotomies’ (p.8). I’m one of them. In his second response to his critics, he tackles the issue of the false dichotomy.

Robert says “A false dichotomy is an either/or choice where some middle ground is actually possible. At no point in Progressively Worse do I offer an either/or choice between progressive and traditional education.” Well, that’s one definition. A false dichotomy can also be something presented as a dichotomy when other options are available – two categories might not be enough. How people form categories is worth exploring in more depth, but in this post I want to ask what progressive education or progressive schools are being compared to.

In his introduction to Progressively Worse Robert identifies four core themes that he says characterise progressive education. It is child-centered, focuses on skills rather than knowledge, sees strict discipline and moral education as oppressive and assumes that socio-economic background dictates success (pp. 5-8). The implication is that traditional education is characterised by the opposites. But Robert doesn’t see progressive and traditional education as either/or choices with no middle ground. He says;

Such dichotomies (skills/knowledge, child-centred/teacher-led) are perhaps better thought of as sitting at opposite ends of a spectrum. If we are to decide what constitutes a sensible position on each spectrum, we need to appreciate better how far British schools currently gravitate towards the progressive ends. Whilst a wholesale move towards traditionalist modes of education would be harmful, a corrective shift in that direction is desperately needed.” (p.8)

Although this sounds plausible, there’s a problem inherent in this model. Let’s assume that there’s general agreement that Robert’s four core themes do indeed characterise a construct we call ‘progressive education’. Let’s also assume that each of these four themes has been operationalised – we’ve identified what features of a school indicate where they lie on the sliding scale for each of the core themes. Some schools are going to rate high for progressive on each spectrum, or low for progressive on each. Others are going to be somewhere in the middle. But it would still be possible for a particular school to be, say, teacher-led, but focus on skills rather than knowledge, and to have strict discipline but also believe that socio-economic background dictates success – in short, to be strongly progressive on two of the sliding scales but strongly traditional on the other two.

Such a school wouldn’t occupy a ‘sensible position on each spectrum’, but extreme, opposing positions on the different spectra, making it impossible to determine whether the school as a whole could be described as progressive or traditional. And if we can’t decide whether a school is progressive or traditional, it makes it difficult to compare the performance of different types of school – the idea at the heart of Robert’s thesis.

no comparison

Let’s assume we’ve overcome those methodological hurdles and we’ve found a group of schools that are indisputably ‘progressive’. What do we compare them to? In his response to accusations of cherry-picking, Robert says

“I warrant that any historian writing a counter-narrative to Progressively Worse would have a difficult time finding any cherries worth picking. No seminal government document of the period exists which was as traditionalist as Plowden was progressive.”

The overwhelming impression one gets from Robert’s book is that the march of progressivism between 1960 and 2010 was so relentless that there are no ‘traditional’ state schools left, so a comparison in terms of how progressive/traditional specific schools are and the effectiveness of their educational methods, can’t be made.

How about comparing current progressive state schools to pre-war ones that were more likely to be traditional? When I asked Robert about this in a comment on his post, he agreed that suitable data weren’t available. We don’t have comparable data on numeracy and literacy, for example, prior to 1948.

The only schools left with which a comparison could be made are those within the independent sector; in his book Robert describes them as being largely “immune to the winds of educational change” and concludes that “they have withstood the wilder extremes of the [progressive] movement.” The problem with making a comparison with independent schools is of course that there are confounding factors involved, such as selection, socio-economic background, parental educational attainment and educational support at home. A comparison wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a major challenge and because of the confounding factors, the results wouldn’t be robust.

Robert concludes in response to my question about comparisons;

“Anyway, I think you have misunderstood the title, and therefore argument, of Progressively Worse. I am not suggesting that everything was hunky dory until 1965, and schools got ‘progressively worse’. As I write in the introduction, ‘This book is not a call to return to some distant glory, and the world of blackboards, canes and the 11+ is not the future that it proposes.’ What I do argue is that schools which embrace the principles of progressive education are worse. So far as it exists, the historical evidence for this case is compelling.”

He still doesn’t say what progressive schools are worse than. His perception of them as ‘worse’ doesn’t appear to be derived from an evidence-based comparison between real schools, but on historical evidence that shows that some progressive schools had to be closed because they were so awful, and that some other progressive schools have low GCSE results. Those are bad things, to be sure, but unless we have comparable data on the closure of traditional state schools or their exam results, we’re not actually making a comparison.

At one level, I have some sympathy for new traditionalists like Robert; I’d like to see a coherent curriculum, more pedagogical rigour, more freedom for teachers to teach and better behaviour in schools. At another level, I’m nonplussed by why he identifies progressive ideas as the main cause of the education system’s shortcomings, and what he presents as ‘evidence’ supporting the need to replace progressive education with … what exactly? Robert doesn’t say, but it’s difficult to avoid the impression that he thinks state schools modelling themselves on independent schools might be the way forward. I agree that the education system in England leaves a good deal to be desired, but that could be due to a badly designed curriculum, inadequate teacher training, poor behaviour management and a lack of government understanding of how systems function, rather than progressive ideas. Modelling state schools on independent schools could still fail to address all of those issues. My concern is that if the evidence being used to justify such a change is derived from poorly defined constructs that aren’t operationalised, the absence of data, and no attempt to eliminate bias, we will simply be spending a lot of money replacing one opinion-based education system with another. We’ve been doing that since 1944 and look where it’s got us. I’m still perplexed.

2 thoughts on “no comparison: Progressively Worse

  1. 100% agree. I have posted similar views on Mr Peal’s blog yesterday, however my comment was not written with anywhere near the same precision and eloquence as yours blogpost.

    Thanks again for an excellent analysis.

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